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How Emergency Preparedness Saved Lives in Austin

The shooting yesterday at University of Texas-Austin provides a good example of how funding emergency preparedness efforts improves safety. The Austin-American Statesman reports today that the early reviews of the response to the incident, in which only the shooter himself perished, are good. Part of the reason for the operation’s success, it turns out, is that Austin’s first responders have been practicing for this very type of situation:

Just last month, city and university police and other first responders participated in a so-called active shooter drill using a building on campus scheduled for demolition. Emergency responders practiced knocking down doors and breaking through windows.

A tabletop exercise last month put representatives of other university units through the paces.

At UT-Austin, as elsewhere, 9/11 prompted leaders to think more seriously about emergency preparedness. Drills and tabletop exercises can drain strapped budgets at police and fire departments: For every officer or firefighter taken off the job for the drill, the department has to bring in another to cover normal duties, which often means paying overtime. At the same time, drills are essential to making connections between institutions like universities and public safety departments, so that key players are not meeting and working together for the first time during a high-stakes incident.

In cases like this, which are incredibly difficult to predict or prevent, efficient responses are all the more important. Not much information has come out about Colton Tooley, yesterday’s shooter; so far it’s mostly along the lines of “he was a smart, quiet kid” and “no one saw this coming.” In the wake of the Virgina Tech shooting, the recommendations from Bush administration leaders focused on improving communication among health providers, law enforcement and school officials about students suffering from who could pose a threat, while still guarding those students’ privacy and rights. But it’s not clear right now whether those sorts of measures would have helped prevent Tooley’s actions.

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